They come up every year, these kids with style and talent and the promise of doing things better than anyone has ever done them before. And then they disappoint us and we reject them, and the tag of "boy wonders" follows them like a smirk down the rest of their days. Perhaps it would be better if they kept a hitch in their swings and some baby fat on their legs until they are really ready to perform in the limelight of press and television.
So say a prayer for the next Nicklaus, the one christened Ben Crenshaw; hope that David Clyde never goes on waivers, like Von McDaniel did; root for Chrissy Evert and Evonne Goolagong, that they will always get better—or else they will spend their lives pursued by the same demons that Jim Ryun and John Thomas could never shake. "There just ain't no place for kids to be lousy anymore," George Burns once said, bemoaning the death of vaudeville, and he might have been speaking of Marty Fleckman or George Mira or Art Heyman or Terry Baker or all the others who turn out to be only so good, but never so great as we felt they should be. Of course, some of the comets at least got into the money before the truth burned them out. But Dennis Ralston went down smoking as an amateur.
Perhaps since so little of it had to do with money. Ralston's tragedy was purer—and that may also be why he could be so quickly redeemed. For now Dennis Ralston has proved the world wrong twice. He was not the next Budge (or Kramer, or Gonzales) as everyone claimed. But then neither was he Dennis the Menace, which seemed just as certain. Ralston was less a player and more a man than anyone perceived—and he knows who got the better of that misconception.
"I haven't any regrets," he says. "Who's to say I'd be where I am now if I'd won lots of Wimbledons and lots of money? Who's to say I'd have my family? Who's to say I'd be happy now? I am happy now, and I wasn't happy then, not even when I was No. 1 and getting all the publicity. But I didn't have any sense of direction then, and I have that now, and let me tell you, it is better than the big money."
September 2, 1973
Barely into his 30s, and while most of his contemporaries are still playing full time, the infamous Dennis the Menace, celebrated as bad sport, choke artist, malcontent, is concluding his second year in one of the most sensitive positions in American athletics: captain and coach of the Davis Cup team. To the players he is a combination of strategist, diplomat, teacher, boss, friend. Having led the U.S. past Chile and Rumania this month, Ralston now has only the finals against either Australia or Czechoslovakia ahead at Cleveland in December for another successful defense of the cup.
No one in modern times has ever held the dual job that Ralston was given when he was only 29, yet his predecessor as captain, Donald Dell, declares that Ralston is "the best," the best captain and the best coach that the U.S. has ever had. Under Ralston's leadership U.S. teams have won five straight cups. Stan Smith, the team's mainstay, the fellow who has achieved so many of the things on court that Dennis Ralston was supposed to, says, "Denny is so good because he knows exactly what to emphasize. He never goes through the motions. And for some reason he is able to tell others how to do what he was never able to do himself."
One sees him again, a decade ago, the kid from Bakersfield, early in the third act of his tragedy. He is still in college, freckle-faced and spike-haired, still so very vulnerable even after years of being the next Budge/Kramer/Gonzales. He had reached the semifinals at Forest Hills at 18; he had passed up his high school graduation to go to Wimbledon and, with another kid named Rafael Osuna, he had won the doubles championship of the world; with Chuck McKinley he had regained the Davis Cup. He was quick and tall, with a bagful of rich shots. "Mechanically, he had everything," Jack Kramer says now, reneging on none of the rave reviews of that time. "Oh, maybe not enough spin on his second serve, but outside of that—everything."
But it was not to be. In 1964 he lost both his singles matches and the cup. At Forest Hills he never exceeded what he had accomplished as an 18-year-old. At Wimbledon he did reach the finals once, but then fell in straight sets. His knees finally degenerated, to end all pretense to greatness. But even before that it was clear that he would never attain the eminence ordained for him. So the experts turned on him, infuriated that he had dared to cross their judgment. The monster they had created and the monster role that Ralston often assumed himself was destroyed one heavy August afternoon in Barcelona in 1965.
Here he is, at that moment, wandering across the back lawns of the Real Club. In the distance the crowds, roaring still. The No. 1 American has been beaten, routed by an unknown Spaniard named Juan Gisbert in the opening Davis Cup match. Ralston is in peak shape, but he looks drained and haggard. The face reflects more confusion than disappointment. He and his wife see each other and rush together and, though he is much taller, he appears to fall sheepishly into her arms. "It's all right, honey," Linda says, holding his head. "It's all right, it's all right." And there is no doubt, at last, that she is not holding the next anyone, only Dennis Ralston from Bakersfield, Calif.
"Everybody always figured I was so good, they can never understand why I lose," he said soon after. "Look, I'm just no Gonzales, no Kramer."
In a very real way, though, places like Barcelona with their catastrophes became the playing fields of Eton for the present U.S. team. Ralston has served under so many captains and coaches in such trying circumstances that he has seen what works best. Bob Kelleher, for instance, was no tennis tactician during his reign as captain in 1962-63, but Ralston appreciates now how profound Kelleher was at handling variant personalities. Donald Dell was a master at organization and public relations.
"You can develop a team attitude if you have time enough," Ralston says. "In Rumania last year, after Tom Gorman lost the second match, we were really down. A couple guys said to hell with it, let's not play. They're gonna steal it anyway. Harold Solomon was the guy Gorman beat out, but he was the one who stood up and said, 'No, we got to go out there and win the cup for one guy, for Gorman.' "
By contrast, many U.S. teams in the past had no such rapport, or spirit. When Dave Freed was captain in 1960-61 he used to amuse the players with magic tricks. "Hey, Dave, make yourself disappear," they would hoot back at him. Pancho Gonzales was coach at a time when he was fading and insecure as a player, jealous of the very people he was supposed to be teaching. George MacCall was so tense as captain that he made his own players nervous and, ultimately, had to be physically restrained in the middle of a match from getting near a player and upsetting him further.
Ralston is surely no less emotional than Gonzales or MacCall, but precisely because he did play under them he knows he must keep the volcano capped. "He's probably tighter than all of us," Solomon says, "but he just puts on that fake little smile and then, if things are really tough during a match, he'll start shifting chairs too." Significantly, in the bedlam at Bucharest it was Ralston, the old scourge of the courts, who calmed Smith—a person Ralston lionizes for possessing "more faith and inner peace than any player in the world."
"To tell you the truth, I was going nuts," Smith says, "but whenever I'd cross over, Denny still had his cool."
Although Ralston took over as coach when he was only 25, he never experienced any difficulty in bossing his contemporaries. Dell, the captain who appointed him, was only a few years older than the players, and Dell made it clear that Ralston was in full command on the practice courts. In the first workout Ralston ordered wind sprints: Clark Graebner fell out after the first one, advising Dell that it was bad for his back. Dell told Graebnerto inform Ralston. He did. Ralston ordered Graebner to run double sprints. Since that day there has been no threat to his authority.
Ralston is a disciplinarian who nonetheless works hard for his team, squeezing blood out of the USLTA stone. With annoyance and even some bitterness, he recalls how regularly he was slighted as a player and mistreated by the brass when he was struggling to salvage the honor of America for $28 a day "expenses." At Cleveland in the Challenge Round of 1964 the Australians had a glorious bucket of ice and fresh oranges to use during the crossovers. For Ralston there was only "a warm Coke sitting in the dirt." Vic Seixas, the captain that year, invited the McKinleys and Ralstons out to dinner a few days before the matches put $50,000 in the USLTA coffers, then required the two stars to ante up, to a penny, their portions of the check. U.S. Davis Cuppers make more representative weekly salaries now, but still not so much as to ease the pain when a kid like Jimmy Connors turns down a probable backup role on the squad to rip off easy big prize money at depleted tournaments lacking the best players. Camaraderie is one consolation: Ralston features team dinners, parties, gifts of clothing, even team skits and team vacations. "They would have told me I spent too much money last year if we had lost," he says.
Ultimately, however, the captain is not judged so much by his ability to get on with the team at social events as by how well he performs at courtside. Even the most successful captain in history, Harry Hopman, has been twitted behind his back by some of his old Aussies, who report that often when the chips were down Hopman offered such scintillating technical advice as "Get your first one in" or "Hit for the alleys." But at least he never lost presence. And then there was that pep talk Ralston can remember getting from MacCall when, exhausted and down 4-1 to Gisbert in the final set at Barcelona, MacCall said: "You got him now." O.K., General Custer.
By contrast, Ralston has been remarkably keen in the clutch. When a player is going poorly, he is able to rationally examine every component in a stroke to divine what has gone awry. For instance, when Solomon was serving badly in his first cup match against Mexico in 1972 Ralston finally decided that a bad toss was the problem, and informed Solomon at a crossover to correct the motion. It sounds elementary, but in the heat of battle few captains are able to isolate such intricacies. Ralston claims that the U.S. gains a significant edge with careful preparation and is the only nation to employ sophisticated scouting techniques. Tennis players have always had lines on opponents—play to his backhand, lob him, those obvious basics—but Ralston and the Americans are making a science of tennis scouting for the first time. Nastase, for example, was played—and beaten—by Smith off a Ralston scouting report—he was made to do something he continued didn't want to do. And now Ralston can actually say things like: "Down love-30, Emerson will serve wide to the forehand 85% of the time." Seven years ago, when he stepped on the court before the finals of Wimbledon, he had not given a thought to how he would play for the championship of the world. "Zilch," he says, somewhat apologetically.
There is great irony that there was no one like Dennis Ralston to take care of Dennis Ralston when he needed it. Yet it was not only the mandarins of the game who failed him; he himself was a willing accomplice. Arthur Ashe recalls the early Ralston with mixed emotions. "People expected too much of Denny and me. It was for different reasons, but we had the same monkey on our backs. From 17 on, Dennis was to be the greatest, the next Gonzales, and when he couldn't live up to that, it frustrated him terribly. But Denny let himself get caught, too. There's a black expression: 'Know where he's coming from.' There was no question that Dennis was spoiled where he was coming from."
Ralston was also unlucky. He took a bad rap as a troublemaker, and it stuck with him largely because he looked the part and because of the name Dennis the Menace. Guys named Chuck and Butch and Barry probably misbehaved just as badly on the Freed teams, but there was no cartoon character to rhyme them with. Besides, when Ralston concentrates, his soft blue eyes fade into his cliff forehead and his mouth does strange things, none of them attractive, and he appears to be scowling.
"He was such a perfectionist," Dell says. "If Denny made five great shots and the sixth nicked the tape, that would infuriate him. I picked him as coach because I hoped that he could take that perfectionism and channel it into improving other players."
While it startled many that Dell would want to ally himself with such a suspect temperament, he appreciated that Ralston's inordinate devotion to an ideal could manifest itself in positive ways: lasting loyalty and an abiding concern with fairness. Unfortunately, none of these things necessarily did much for Ralston when he was hustling around as a player in the superficial nowhere world of big-time tennis.
He is—as they say of horses—a bad shipper, possessing an obsessive, almost masochistic, relationship with airplanes. If he ever does go down, the worst part will be that he will not be able to say, "I told you so." This macabre preoccupation increased after Osuna was killed on a flight that slammed into the top of a mountain, missing clearance by a mere three feet.
Ralston never liked to travel anywhere in any way, and was invariably homesick. Since Wimbledon and Forest Hills are only rarely scheduled in Bakersfield, his game suffered. Bakersfield, at the base of the San Joaquin Valley, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is a city of 70,000 but by the standards of an urban nation it resembles the small town of lore. We say nobody comes from small towns anymore, but they do; it is just that the small towns are larger. Bakersfield is at the confluence of many primary American strains: the cotton of the South; the oil of the Southwest; the oranges of the subtropics; the heat and the trucks of a Midwest summer; the grapes of wrath and Cesar Chavez. It is not surprising that Madison Avenue employs Bakersfield as a model pretest market town or that country music took hold there. Ralston won first prize, a red-white-and-blue guitar, in Buck Owens' golf invitational there last year.
All the players would always kid Ralston about how he could love this sere, plain place and so happily retreat to it. Ralston would even fly home from Texas when he had a day off in the middle of a tournament. The short stay would rejuvenate him, especially after he and Linda, a Bakersfield girl, were married in 1964.
Almost from the first, as they discuss it easily now, the marriage worked at cross-purposes to his career. Although the two have been devoted to each other, Linda had only a passing interest in tennis; and once the novelty wore off, she came to detest travel. "I know how selfish I was then," she says, "but I'm just the sort of person who needs her own things—my own house, my own family, my own room, you know, even my own bathtub." She stayed home to raise her family. He would phone her, interminably he would phone her, and talk of everything at home. Finally, he would have to say, "Aren't you going to ask me how I did?"
"Oh, yeah, how'd you do?"
"I won 6-0, 6-2."
"Oh, that's great." And no more. It would only make Ralston want to get back home faster. He is a fully domesticated animal. This spring, when the team played in Mexico, he took his oldest daughter Angela, who is seven, along for company.
One day last year when Ralston was away, Linda and the three kids got caught a few miles from home in a massive thunderstorm that loosed a mud slide upon the road. She feels that the family was saved only because they were in the station wagon instead of the small runabout. Although she had always been a Presbyterian (and Dennis an Episcopalian) religion had played no role in her life, but the near tragedy compromised her California-comfortable assurances of existence, and when she saw a sign at a nearby church inviting attendance at a Bible study, she went in.
The church is Mennonite Brethren—an obscure denomination, to be sure—but Linda was immediately affected by what she heard. "I could tell something was different with her the day I got home," Dennis says. Soon he was attending services himself; they both were baptized again (by immersion), and Ralston has subsequently delivered speeches of witness. Bible verses are tacked up about the house, and religious books and tracts dominate the coffee tables. Yet there is nothing to suggest that this is some flashy Pharisean display. The Ralstons' whole life seems to be genuinely defined in terms of their new faith.
"I did not really love Dennis or help him as I should have," Linda says candidly. "I was interested only in myself and in my children."
"But understand, this doesn't bother me," Dennis says, "because perhaps if it had been otherwise I would not have found Christ. I still have a long way to go, but it makes a great difference to at last be out there when you are not alone."
So Dennis Ralston has found his peace, and his niche and, after a knee operation, maybe even 70% of his old mobility too. He will take his tight knee bandages and his Arthur Ashe racket and his scowl to Forest Hills where he will try both the singles and the doubles, in a nostalgic pairing with McKinley. If he plays well there, he will make some additional tournament appearances and, despite all his protests, it is hard not to look a little further ahead and see him sending himself in to play doubles sometime for Uncle Sam. Redemption is fine, but comeback can pay more bills.
"You know, I was so dissatisfied with my life that for a time my position with the Davis Cup team was the one thing that kept me from thinking I had become useless in tennis," he says. He was then only a couple of years removed from the very top of the world game—and still so young—but he stood hurt and forgotten, unseeded on tour, a has-been.
"The last time I played at Forest Hills I lost to a guy named Holecek," Ralston says. "I couldn't bend my knees to hit a low volley, but the most miserable thing was that this was the first time in my life that I had ever entered a tournament knowing that I could not win it. All right, there I was, a hack."
They razz him now, the kids on his team. Tom Gorman said he would not agree to play doubles with him in the Pacific Southwest "until I see how your knees hold up." Erik van Dillen cackles and issues new long-shot odds on any doubles team that Ralston joins in practice. They call him "Vince"—for Lombardi—and he seems wise and old, from another generation, and yet younger and happier than he ever was when he was supposed to be young and happy but had to spend all his time being the next Kramer.
None of us will ever know how good he almost was. He probably knows that least of all himself. "You got to be yourself, Solly," he told Harold Solomon one day before the matches in Little Rock against Chile. Solomon had not been playing well and was down. "You can adapt your style differently to each particular match, but you got to keep playing your game."
"The funny thing is," Solomon said, "I'm playing my best on grass now." He is recognized strictly as a clay-court player.
"Well, fine," Ralston said, "then you can win Forest Hills." They both laughed, but then Ralston decided to correct that. "No, wait a minute. You can't do that, Solly, because this time I'm going to win Forest Hills." He looked shyly away after he said it, sharing a joke about himself with himself. The awful tease of might-have-been was at his back now, and the real smile that burst over his face was provided by the next Ralston, whoever he is.